They Raised The Titanic !

This past weekend, a select group of railroad fans witnessed a miraculous event. The sleek, two-toned gray observation-lounge sleeper named “Hickory Creek” made a triumphal return to its former home on the New York Central.

Each evening the Hickory Creek and its sister observation lounge, the Sandy Creek, would “bring up the rear marker lights” on one of the most prestigious trains in the world. This was the famed Twentieth Century Limited of the New York Central.

The Century wasn’t just a train. It was a happening. Government leaders, corporate executives, sports stars, radio and television personalities, actors of the movies and the Broadway stage, and other world figures would book their itineraries on the Century many months before their scheduled departure.

Prior to the Century’s departure from New York to Chicago, the railroad in Grand Central Terminal would roll out a plush blue carpet on the boarding platform. The same act was repeated in La Salle Street Station on the eastbound Century’s trip from Chicago to New York.

The Century carried only private room sleeping car accommodations. It made no stops along its route except at division points. At these stops, the NYC changed crews and inspected each car. Crews assigned to the Century had top seniority. The dining car crews were noted chefs. The Century’s dining and club car personnel were hand picked from among the finest in the world

The observation lounge cars named “Sandy Creek,” and “Hickory Creek” were the focal points where the elite gathered. These had raised lookout lounges for greater view. A commonplace traveler might never know which celebrity would be a traveling partner. The Century itself was a star, being used for the Cary Grant movie “North By Northwest.” It also provided the backdrop for “The Sting.”

Time and a change of generations proved to be the undoing of the Century. Passenger travel by train declined to virtually zero. In the late 1960s, the New York Central abdicated from the passenger business and Amtrak took it over. There would never again be another 20th Century Limited. The New York Central itself would soon be gone for good, ultimately being replaced by CSX

When 1999 became 2000, the twentieth century itself vanished off the calendar. Amtrak was the sole passenger carrier in North America. All of the remaining relics of the once famed great steel passenger fleet were now either in railroad museums or else consigned to the scrap merchant. The Century’s two raised lookout observation lounge sleeping cars were fortunate enough to evade the scrap heap.

Of the two cars, the Sandy Creek achieved stardom. The Hickory Creek was initially the tail end car for the circus train. After it served out its years with the lions and tigers, it was eventually put out to pasture, awaiting its inevitable fate.

The North American rail tour operator changed its corporate name and offered a new look for rail excursion travel. The Sandy Creek was the “star” of this rail travel experience. Its new owners renamed it the “New York.” Its advertising used very similar terms to the Century’s heritage. Examples were “one of the most treasured passenger cars in North America. Its plush seating and circular bay window makes this an elegant place to watch the passing scenery.” It was called “The Lookout Lounge,” named after the Century’s design of a ring of eleven extra-high windows.

But what about the Hickory Creek? A railroad fan group in New Jersey spotted the derelict observation car and bought it, saving it from the salvage operator. Using volunteer “sweat and toil” from the members of the group, and aided by a Federal grant, the restoration work of the Hickory Creek began in 2000. These good folk were going to “raise the Titanic.”

They did just that. The interior of the car had its original carpeting and lounge chairs restored. The Lookout Lounge regained its former New York Central identity, complete with the serving bar and all of its lounge chairs. The bedrooms were totally restored to their original New York Central configuration.

The car’s exterior received the original New York Central two-tone gray paint and white lettering. The last operating version of the Hickory Creek was titled “New York Central” instead of “Pullman.” This was due to the fact Pullman went out of business in the mid to late 1950s. The restoration folk opted to restore Hickory Creek to its original status. A model of Hickory Creek exists, however, with the New York Central re-titling. So, railfans can have it both ways.

On Sunday, June 26th, 2006, the Hickory Creek made its inaugural run as a restored signature car of the 20th Century Limited. It was indeed fitting for this car to run most of its trip on the ex-New York Central trackage – tracks that it had plied upon for so many years past. Indeed, they had “Raised The Titanic.”

A year later, the raising of the Titanic was completed. The New York Central Historical Society was holding its annual April 2007 meeting in Buffalo, NY. The NYCHS consisted of many “old timers” that had worked many years on all parts of the former NYC. For four unforgettable days, they gathered together riding aboard the Hickory Creek, attending the convention, and exchanging tales of yesteryear. These astute folk were indeed living through a happening. God bless them all.

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